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Who was John Kelly?


Filmed by Feilimí O’Connor.

A short introduction

John Kelly (1912 – 1989) was a key tradition bearer for the music of West Clare and brought this music to a wider audience throughout his life. As an exceptional performer on fiddle and concertina, folklorist, archivist, teacher and collector, he was a pivotal figure within the traditional-arts community in the twentieth century.

He was from the townland of Rehy West near Kilbaha in West Clare. His music was indicative of the West Clare style of playing. He came from a family steeped in musical tradition. His grandmother was brought up in Scattery Island on the Shannon Estuary.

One of the most significant elements of his repertoire are the tunes he learnt from Scattery Island, many of which were unique to this locality, owing to the unusual convergence of sailors from different parts of Ireland & Europe.

This was recognised by Bréandán Breathnach, the leading authority on traditional Irish music at the time, who published approximately 25 tunes from John in his ‘Ceol Rince na hÉireann’ collections.

Moving to Dublin in 1945, John opened a small shop on Capel Street which became a Mecca for traditional musicians from all over the country & beyond. He had great respect for musicians from other regions & championed many diverse musical styles.

John was instrumental in initiating the only known recording of the travelling piper Johnny Doran, for the Irish Folklore Commission. He also went on trips to Donegal, where he made significant ties with musicians such as John Doherty. On his return, tunes collected from these trips were passed onto another generation of musicians, including a young Seán Keane & other members of the Castle Céilí Band.

John was recognised by Seán Ó Riada as an authority on regional styles of traditional music & collaborated with him on numerous occasion including with the celebrated band, Ceoltóirí Chualann. Subsequently, he was also a member of Ceoltóirí Laighean with Éamonn De Builtléir. John was part of many seminal traditional music recordings, including his 1975 solo album ‘John Kelly – Fiddle & Concertina Player’.

He was heavily involved in Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and was the first fiddle teacher and the subsequently directed the fiddle element of the summer school until the end of his life. He imbued the fiddle school with teachers of the West Clare style while also championing teachers from other regional styles. John’s sons, John Jr and James perpetuate their father’s legacy through their playing & teaching.

His influence can still be felt today; world-renowned musicians such as Martin Hayes, Noel Hill, Paddy Glackin and Brendan Begley regularly cite him as a seminal influence on their music and musical outlook.

You can learn more about John by going through this website and learning about the different aspects of his life.